Preventing Executive Burnout
The pace of change at work keeps accelerating. As companies continue
to search for ever higher levels of quality, service and overall
business agility, the pressures are felt on individuals at all
levels of the organization. The treadmill moves faster, companies
work harder, improvements are made only to be changed again and
again. Today's managers are experiencing a whole new order of exhaustion.
Performance targets become tougher to meet in each succeeding
quarter and fiscal year. Managers have ever-widening spans of control.
In the boundary-less organization, work goes on round the clock.
The post-dinner time zone has become prime time for answering e-mails,
voice mails, faxes and the rest of what didn't get done during
office hours. Thanks to technology, work is now very portable.
It's easy to see why many managers feel overwhelmed. The only
way they can get it all done is to take the writing, reading and
reviewing tasks home. Finding personal fulfillment through one's
work is becoming more of a challenge. Job burnout is a reality
for many people.
The incidence of job burnout has reached epidemic proportions
• Corporations merge and the interests
of the stockholders predominate
• Jobs are eliminated or combined because of technological innovations
• Individuals often cover two or more jobs because of shortages
in the labor market
• More production moves overseas where labor costs are cheaper
• Layoffs occur with alarming frequency
Managing people is the most difficult administrative task and
is an unending source of stress for executives. The manager must
cope with the least capable of the employees, with the depressed,
the suspicious, the rebellious, the self-centered and the generally
unhappy. He or she must balance conflicting personalities and create
from them a motivated work group. He or she must define group purpose,
organize people around it, resolve conflicts, establish priorities,
make decisions about other people, accept and deflect their hostility,
and deal with the frustration that arises out of the continuing
interaction. That frustration causes many to burn out.
Adding to the stress at work is the
complexity of modern organizations. The
bigger and more intricate organizations become, the longer it
takes to get things done. Along with increasing complexity comes
an increase in the number of people with whom a manager has to
deal. As companies grow, merge, or reorganize, some managers
feel as though they are adrift. There is a threat of obsolescence
when a position or assignment demands new skills and they are
put into a position of "not
Change can also mean that managers have to trim jobs and demote
people or even discharge them. Managers who have to close a plant
or a department may feel angry at having to pay for the sins of
their predecessors. At the same time as this, a rapidly changing
marketplace means intense pressures on managers to come up with
new products, innovative services and novel marketing and financing
Burnout occurs when managers are deluged with sets of competing
demands. Not only is work intense, but there are also demands to
participate in family life, keep up with friends, and complete
normal chores of everyday living. Managers may feel a decreased
ability to set limits on these various demands. They then begin
to feel a vague sense of just not caring so much about work, or
maybe anything, anymore. They feel overwhelmed and retreat.
Unfortunately, it is often those who show the most promise at
the beginning of their careers who later succumb to burnout. They
are idealists, perfectionists and highly conscientious. They are
achievers who have high energy levels and positive attitudes. They
are dedicated and committed to doing well. Over time, however,
stress and the inability to cope with the demands of the job lead
to dissatisfaction and pessimistic attitudes.
High achievers in management may feel it is not acceptable to
admit to stress and burnout. This compounds the problem because
there is no room to talk about it. With whom is the executive going
to discuss a personal sense of discouragement? Hopefully, with
an executive coach, who can spot and deal with the issues before
they become severe. Even then, denial may be too strong and personal
pride too great to fully explore the possibility of encroaching
burnout until after it becomes a serious impairment.
What can help to prevent executive burnout personally or in the
people you manage? The first step is to become more aware of the
signs of burnout. The next is to recommend talking with someone,
preferably a trained coach who can help make a plan to turn the
process around. Dealing effectively with the symptoms of burnout
can lead to increased self-awareness. It can create a sense of
direction, and mobilize renewed energy and enthusiasm for career
Some Common Signs of Burnout
Interpersonal Problems - When emotionally drained at work, it
becomes more difficult to deal with other people. When conflicts
occur, a person may overreact with an emotional outburst or increased
hostility. Because of this, they may then start to isolate from
Emotional Fatigue - It is common to feel dissatisfied, angry,
frustrated or depressed from time to time. When caught in the burnout
cycle, however, these negative emotions become predominant. Maintaining
oneself throughout the day becomes tiring - a person can lose the
ability to face challenges with a positive attitude. They may eventually
experience numbness and have difficulty in feeling much of anything.
Low Productivity - During the burnout phase it is common to experience
boredom and a loss of enthusiasm for projects. A manager may feel
disillusioned or cynical. They may find it difficult to concentrate
and harness the energy required to produce quality work. They begin
to question whether work is meaningful.
Health Problems - As emotional reserves are depleted, a person
may begin to experience physical problems. They may feel constantly
tired and run down. Some common physical symptoms include headaches,
back pain, colds, insomnia, rashes or hives, chest pains or palpitations,
gastrointestinal problems, and nervous tics. Sleep problems are
common. Research shows that when people are experiencing stress
in their lives, they are more prone to not only illness, but to
accidents. Car accidents are an increased risk since thoughts are
not focused on driving.
Addictive Resolutions - To cope with the chronic stress, some
may resort to substance use. An increased intake of caffeine on
the job is common, along with nicotine, and drugs such as prescription
medication and/or alcohol. Some people resort to illegal drug use.
Normal activities such as television or computer use can also become
addicting. An increase or decrease in food intake may accompany
job burnout. These attempts at self-soothing, however, further
compound the problem and fail to address the real issues.
Obsessive Thinking - During
non-working hours, work continues to preoccupy the mind, even
when one is physically involved with other pursuits. Usual spiritual,
religious or recreational practices fail to offer relief. Thoughts
continually focus on problems rather than on solutions. Some
people "work harder," increasing
time spent on tasks, just to try to increase a sense of satisfaction.
Often the tasks completed are not the most essential, as judgment
becomes impaired with increased stress.
What can executives do to prevent burnout, either in themselves,
or in the managers and people they work with?
First, they must recognize that burnout can and will happen. This
ought to be acknowledged up-front by the people in charge of orientation
programs, management training courses and discussions. Let people
know that the organization recognizes and cares about preventing
Personnel managers should be candid with new employees about the
psychological aspects of the work and the intense pressures they
may come to feel. The more people know, the less guilt they are
likely to feel about their own perceived inadequacies when the
pressures begin to mount.
Managers can also keep track of how long people are in certain
high pressure jobs and rotate them out of potentially exhausting
positions. Don't allow people to work extended hours for any length
of time. A change of pace can shift energy and allow people to
replenish and revitalize themselves.
Make sure the organization has ways of letting people know that
their contributions are important. Many performance appraisal programs
actually contribute to people's sense that their efforts are unrecognized.
Managers should provide avenues through which people can express
not only their anger but also their disappointment, helplessness,
hopelessness, defeat and depression. Salespeople, for example,
face defeat everyday; others experience frustration when a contract
is lost, a product fails, or when competition is strong. When people
in defeat deny their anger, it contributes to burnout.
Executives may have a need for peer support. In recent years several
groups have formed with members from non-competing industries.
The purpose of such groups is to exchange ideas, get feedback,
discuss challenges and opportunities, establish compelling goals,
and to take action. This offers executives an opportunity to receive
support that can stave off burnout.
Offering recreational breaks can help. Informal off-site retreats
can help revitalize teams as well as Individuals and they serve
as reward and recognition for hard work.
Offering workshops and regular retraining
to upgrade skills is vital. Leaders
must actively offer opportunities for people to keep up with
rapidly changing demands in order to offset feelings of "not- knowing." When
people feel they lack knowledge and skills, they are prime candidates
for helplessness and burnout.
One of the most effective measures against burnout is offering
the services of a professional coach. Through weekly sessions,
the individual is allowed to express things that might otherwise
be repressed and denied because of organizational politics. The
person can explore what really matters the most, what strengths
and needs are available, and how best to handle stress and challenges.
When there is a mismatch of an individual and the job, an effective
plan can be made that benefits both the individual and the organization.
If executives fail to see these problems as serious, they may
If executives fail to see that organizational factors can cause
burnout, their lack of understanding may perpetuate the problem.
Sufferers need to know that their problem has to do with the nature
of the job and not their capacity to handle it.
Burnout As a Gift
Burning out at work can be a frightening experience. After all,
most people spend the majority of waking hours on the job - more
hours, in fact, than is spent with families and friends. When this
enormous part of life brings stress, worry, self-esteem issues,
anger, depression and detachment, a major personal crisis is generated.
The first impulse is to deny that job stress is finally getting
to us. To persevere and keep doing the same things every day, working
even harder, is not the answer to finding relief. The cycle is
futile. More work is not going to alleviate the problem of working
Think of a job burnout crisis as a gift. This is a gift which
tells us that something is wrong. We must look to find answers.
Without the burnout crisis, we may never feel prompted to finally
answer some critical questions about career and life -
• What really matters to me?
• What do I like the most about my work?
• What part of my job am I really good at?
• What causes me the most stress and fatigue?
• What can I do about delegating or teaming the parts of my job I
dislike the most?
• What do I enjoy doing at work so much that I'd do it even if I
weren't paid for it?
• What natural strengths and abilities do I carry into this work?
• Are my strengths and talents applied in my present position, and
if not, how can they be?
• If my present position were to disappear, what would I create for
my next ideal project?
• What can I do to change my present responsibilities to match my
• What can I do to eliminate the stressful energy drains?
• What can I do to get my personal needs met in light of organizational
• How will I look back on this present situation at the end of my
career or life?
It helps to address these questions with a professional coach
who provides a safe, nurturing and enlightening setting for exploring
these critical life issues.
Resources is a Leadership Consulting, Training and Executive Coaching
Firm Helping Companies Assess, Select, Coach and Retain Emotionally
Intelligent People; Emotional Intelligence-Based Interviewing and
Selection; Multi-Rater 360-Degree Feedback; Career Coaching; Change
Management; Corporate Culture Surveys and Executive Coaching.
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach
Trusted Advisor to Senior Leadership Teams
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